Music

The Smashing Pumpkins: Oceania (take 2)

Oceania is a prog rock record. The songs might not be as long, but the sounds and the themes are just as portentous as all that dinosaur rock of the 1970s. And it's just as boring, too.


The Smashing Pumpkins

Oceania

Label: Martha's Music
US Release Date: 2012-06-19
UK Release Date: 2012-06-19
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Billy Corgan was once a man blessed. Gifted with great ideas and a band who could bear him just about enough to help him to put them into practice, the Smashing Pumpkins made a very special brew out of heavy metal sludge and dreamy pop. Not only did they serve up that sludge in a gloomy goth glass, they had the shameless audacity to take more from Black Sabbath than they did from Black Flag -- to top off their sound with technical ability instead of punky DIY spirit. Most importantly, though, they made golden, gleaming, and loud, pop songs. But the Smashing Pumpkins were a band cursed. They faced troubles like drummer Jimmy Chamberlain’s drug addiction, Corgan's own battles with depression, constant ego wars, and infighting that eventually tore them apart.

Billy Corgan promised us that Oceania would be the record that got the pumpkin rolling again after years of stagnation. But we all know that the band behind Oceania isn’t the same band that made Gish, or Siamese Dream, or Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. It’s not the same group of people, and the music just doesn’t have the same personality. Indeed, Oceania tries very hard to be a prog rock record. The songs might not be as long as those found on your typical prog rock album, but the sounds and the themes are just as portentous, and it's just as boring, so there’s no escaping the fact that it owes a big debt to all those concept albums made in the 1970s.

Billy Corgan conceives of Oceania as an album-within-an-album, a compartment in the mammoth, 44-song-long concept album Teargarden By Kaleidyscope, which is based on the Tarot. Yeah, seriously. Where the supposed “spiritual” content begins or ends isn’t clear. What is clear, however, is that Corgan seems to think that he’s giving us an insight into the vertiginous impossibility of the act of creation and of the terrible impurity of the created thing. But all this talk of mad spiritual meta-albums really does is confuse the cockles out of us before we even start listening to it.

Billy Corgan has given these songs baffling titles, like “Inkless” and “Glissandra”. And even the songs named after recognisable phenomena like “Quasar” and “Panopticon” and “Oceania” and “The Chimera” don’t seem to mean anything here. Fortunately, though, there are enough massive, muscular guitar riffs here to make us forget about all that. Opener “Quasar”, much like “Cherub Rock”, builds up and up and up before breaking into a steel girder of guitars. But its intensity is compromised by how unnatural – how computer-generated – it all seems. And that’s Oceania’s central problem: it seems strangely inhuman.

Billy Corgan has made sure that Oceania is a high-tech affair from start to finish. But that hi-tech inhumanity also seems to express a nostalgia for the analogue prog rock past. It’s almost as if Corgan and co-producer Bjorn Thorsrud relish the technological advances that allow them to make the guitars sound psychedelic – stickily swirling on “My Love Is Winter”, like melted rocks on “The Chimera” – while at the same time pining for being unable to make that psychedelic seem as authentically rough and ready as it did back in the day. The synthesisers do not help on this front, either. Sometimes they sound like retro sci-fi, as if Rick Wakeman himself played them, like during the opening of “Violet Rays”, throughout the long nine minutes of “Oceania”, and on “My Love Is Winter”, in which even the drums have phasers on them (set merely to stun, of course). And Sometimes, those synths even sound unsustainably New Age-y, like shrink-wrapped flower-power (“One Diamond, One Heart”, “Pinwheels”). And sadly, all of this technical and stylistic wizardry overshadows what should be really important, like, you know, the melodies, and, er, the songs, and the structure of the album itself.

Billy Corgan can’t ever quite muster up the magic of the Pumpkins’ early years because, to be honest, the songs just aren’t good enough. The second half (“Pale Horse through to “Inkless”) is much better than the first, but most of these songs seem totally unsure of themselves. “Quasar” seems to drag on for way longer than its measly four minutes, and it spends much of its running time switching up and changing direction without warning. The attempts at earnest acoustica on “My Love Is Winter”, “Pinwheels” and “The Celestials”, which all-too-predictably surges into overdrive after the halfway mark, are just a bit of phoney baloney. But, then again, can we really expect anything better from the Smashing Pumpkins at this stage in the game? Can we just about manage to forgive Corgan for his trespasses (the retro revisionism, the going-nowhere guitar solos, and the godawful song titles) simply because he seems to be trying so gosh-darned hard? Perhaps. But make no mistake, we’re not asking these questions of the band the Smashing Pumpkins, because Oceania is not a record by the band the Smashing Pumpkins. No. Oceania is a record by the one-man-band Billy Corgan. The whole thing’s about Billy Corgan this and Billy Corgan that. The Smashing Pumpkins might have other members, but you wouldn't know it.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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